On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - D’varim: Why Tragedies Happen, and How to Respond

Parashat D’varim is the first portion of the Book of Deuteronomy, and this year it is read just before Tishah B’Av – a day that, throughout Jewish history, has been one of tragedy and destruction. What does it mean that so many horrible events have taken place on this one particular day? Rabbi Rick Jacobs explores this question in this week’s episode of On the Other Hand.

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Welcome back to On The Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah, the podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion of the week in about 10 minutes or less. This week, in Parashat D'varim, Rabbi Jacobs actually teaches us a bit about Tisha B'Av, which is coming up in just a few days. And he asks us to think about what it means to really rebuild.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs: This week we focus our attention on Parashat D'varim, the first Torah portion of the Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth and last book of the five books of Moses. It also turns out it is right before the observance of Tisha B'Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, which is a day in Jewish history which has been a day of tragedy, a day of destruction. In the ancient Mishnah, in Tractate Ta'anit, it says that there were five things that happened on this day, the Ninth of Av. It says on the Ninth of Av, it was decreed that the generation of the desert would not enter the land of Israel. The First Temple was destroyed. The Second Temple was destroyed. Beitar, which was the last Jewish stronghold after the destruction of Jerusalem was conquered and Jerusalem was plowed under. When the month of Av enters, the text tells us we become less joyful. It's even called in Hebrew, Menachem, which means the comforting of Av. It's painful. So, it may not be the most familiar holiday to everyone who listens to the podcast, but in Jewish history I think we are taught that not only do we have pain that we remember; we actually, in many of us in our lifetimes, have witnessed a tragedy and deep, deep loss as a people. We know that today anti-Semitism is on the rise. And we are asked to think about these categories.

Now the question we might ask is, is it a coincidence that all these terrible things happen on one particular day? I don't know the answer to that, but I do know that even the debate about what we remember is interesting. I remember Isaiah Gaffney, who is an Israeli professor of history, said that on holidays that celebrate events, very often. the Israeli TV gets a couple of guests to come on and tell people what the significance is. And he says that on Tisha B'Av there is invariably a commentator from the Israeli left who explained that the Temple was destroyed and Israel is conquered by the Romans. Why? Because Jews hated one another. A right wing commentator would then explain that both the temples were destroyed and fell because of the failure of the Jewish people to unite against the common enemy militarily. And then it falls on Professor Gafney to explain that there was really only one reason, he says, for the fall of the Temple. Rome was absolutely invincible and its huge armies were marching through the world mowing down everyone in their path and nothing could have stopped them from taking Jerusalem.

Now that is of course an historian speaking, but in the Talmud in Tractate Yoma, we're told that actually the Second Temple is destroyed because of sinat hinam, baseless hatred that Jews had for one another.

I have to say, that in this particular moment, seeing some of the acrimony, the way in which Jews talk about their fellow Jews, I think we all should be properly warned that the level of discourse, the level of even hate towards one another, seems to reflect some of what the Bible feared in the book of Lamentations, which describes the destruction and the morning and the Talmud which tells us as to why.

I'm particularly drawn to a poem by Yehuda Amichai who has a poem entitled Hamakom Sh'b'anu Tzodkim, The Place Where We Are Right, which is about destruction. Here's what Amichai, the great contemporary Israeli poet writes:.

Since from the place where we are right/ Flowers will never grow/ in the spring./ The place where we are right/ is hard and trampled/ like a yard./ But doubts and loves/ dig up the world/ like a mole, a plow/ and a whisper will be heard in the place/ where the ruined house/ once stood.

That ruined house, Amichai implies, and we know, was the Temple. And his sense is that whether you take the Yoma Tractate, that it was baseless hatred, he says, where we, as people, get dug in is when we believe that we're right and everyone else is wrong whatever the issue is, whatever the presenting problem. And he says, having doubt, meaning the ability to even question one's own convictions, allows room for someone else's conviction. And he says, when we have that give and take, when we have that that genuine sense of modesty that my view is not going to be the only view, why then, we actually have the ability to grow and to live in a more diverse and pluralistic way.

But if we are convinced that we are the only ones who are right, why that's actually what undid our people in antiquity on Tisha B'Av.

There's an amazing story about Napoleon. It is apocryphal. We don't actually have an exact and reliable historical citation for this, but the story is that Napoleon was going for a walk one summer night. He could have been in Paris or maybe somewhere else in his empire. And he heard voices lamenting in a very strange language. Of course, he might have been walking by a synagogue or a small shul. And he asked why the people inside were sitting on the floor morning, chanting these mournful dirges and he was told that the Jews were grieving for their destroyed Temple in Jerusalem. Napoleon supposedly asked, how long ago did this happen. And the answer he was given was 1800 years ago. He said then, a nation can mourn for so long the loss of its land and Temple. If they can do that, the emperor said prophetically, then one day they will return to their land and see it rebuilt.

Is it true? I don't know if it's true, but I think it's powerful to imagine that Napoleon experienced the depth of mourning through history that we have had that kept Jerusalem alive, that kept our connection to the land alive. The connection to the ancient Jewish forms of spirituality, which very much we feel connected to in our history and even in our reading of the five books of Moses each year.

Now if you've been to a Jewish wedding you know what happens at the end. It's not a surprise. We break a glass. Why don't we break a glass at a Jewish wedding? We break the glass to remind us not only of the destruction of the Temple, but to remind us of the loss of that sense of connectedness, that sense of unity, that galvanizing sense that we're part of something larger. We don't only break a glass of Jewish wedding. There's a teaching and I'm just going to cite it from the Shulchan Aruch, the ancient code of Jewish law, which tells us that when we build a house we're supposed to leave a little corner of the House unplastered. You may not be using plaster, but you get the idea-- leaving some little portion of the house unfinished. Why? To remind us of the destruction of the Temple, of that loss of the foundation stone, that sort of place of Jewish deep connection. I love this. And you know, I don't know if I've seen too many homes where there's a little piece deliberately undone. I mean I would imagine many of us would go to the contractor if we had a house built and we saw that little corner. We'd say, excuse me, but we're paying good money here. You've got to finish the whole job. And can you imagine a Jewish contractor saying, well you know actually, it's an old Jewish tradition. So I can't imagine a lot of people knowing this, but I think it's a beautiful way to remind us that we live in an unredeemed and even an unfinished world.

So what will we do on Tisha B'Av? Traditionally it's a full fast day, a day of no eating or drinking, a day of reading the book of Lamentations, to have these very mournful chants that remind us of the pain and loss within Jewish history, but more importantly than just remembering, to be sobered of the challenges that face us today and maybe even tomorrow and to feel a renewed sense of obligation to not only protect our people and defend our people and defend our land and all of our holy places, but also to feel a sense of responsibility for all who might be living with an extreme sense of vulnerability. Victims of genocide, victims of bigotry and hatred.

So I think particularly this year Tisha B'Av is going to have an extra layer of meaning for many of us. And if it's a holiday that you've never observed, maybe to think of some small part of it that you might want to observe. If it's a holiday that you commemorate each year maybe to think about all the ways in which this moment makes it even more relevant, even more important for us.

So we don't wish somebody a good Tisha B'Av. I wish everyone a meaningful Tisha B'Av, and a chance to reflect on our history, to reflect on our present, and to reflect on our obligation to shape a more just, a more compassionate, a more secure and a more safe world for us, for our families, for our people and for all the world.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including rituals, culture, holidays, and more.

On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l'hitraot.